I am a farmer with forty years of hard-won experience. I have made my share of mistakes, mainly because I thought our landscapes were bulletproof and our resources were super-resilient. Like many, I eventually learned that modern, industrial-scale agriculture is grossly unsustainable. In fact, it is the key force in the massive destabilization of our planet’s ecological balance. But I have also more recently learned that agriculture can become the key force in restoring Earth’s ecological order.
“Agriculture is the largest land-user on earth, the largest chunk of the globe’s GDP, the largest employer of its citizens, and the main source of food and income for most of the world’s poor.”
Agriculture is the largest land-user on earth, the largest chunk of the globe’s GDP, the largest employer of its citizens, and the main source of food and income for most of the world’s poor. Agriculture is also pushing the planet across the threshold of sustainability in several areas—greenhouse gas emissions, the nitrogen cycle, and biodiversity loss—and testing the limits in other areas as well, most notably water.
As a result, many scientists now contend that planet Earth has already entered what is being called the Anthropocene era, so named because, for the first time in the planet’s history, one species—we humans—are now in a position to determine the destiny of most life on Earth, including ourselves. But we have the power to steer the world toward a more desirable destination, and that work can start on the farm.
As a farmer, I have spent the last few years making transformative changes to my own thinking and agricultural practices. I have realized it is possible to grow food and fiber in ways that restore rather than merely deplete the land. I have embraced what is sometimes called “regenerative agriculture,” which has the potential to truly address the crises of the Anthropocene era.
Our 4,500-acre farm in Australia nestles on the tough, high temperate Monaro tablelands of southern New South Wales: a land of hard frosts, big horizons, eucalypt woodlands, and golden grass. Here, my shift from conventional to regenerative agriculture has had startling effects, both ecologically and economically. Through trapping more rain, we grow more diverse vegetation. Our sheep and cattle—and our bank balance—are healthier. Grasshopper plagues are no more, yet other biodiversity has exploded: from mushrooms (fungi), to birds, insects, earthworms, marsupials—and wondrous spiders.
Recently, I have studied how other farmers are applying this approach in Australia, Africa, and North and South America. The results, as on our farm, have been remarkable: Healthy landscape function was restored, production increased, biodiversity rebounded, climate change factors were ameliorated, and vastly healthier food was produced.
“It’s not so much our technology, but what we believe, that will determine our fate.”
In 2010, environmental historian Tim Flannery wrote in his book Here on Earth, “While we humans may be built by our genes, our civilizations are built from ideas,” and therefore, “it’s not so much our technology, but what we believe, that will determine our fate.”
History supports Flannery’s contention, particularly in regard to agriculture and ideas. Most of the great civilizations and dynasties of the past—in India, Mesopotamia, China, around the Mediterranean, and in South and Meso-America—overwhelmed their natural resources through poor soil, water, and landscape management, and their societies collapsed.
All evidence today points to the potential for an even more spectacular crash-and-burn scenario.
Our civilization will ultimately survive—or not—based on whether we heed Flannery’s vision. It is our beliefs that will determine our fate. And there’s reason to believe a new cohort of ecological agriculturalists can alter the course of our civilization with new ideas and practices. They understand that we must embrace a new way of feeding the world, or there won’t be any people left to feed.
Dr. Charles Massy was an Academic Resident at Bellagio in November 2015.